Curbing the Urge to Toss the Fidget Spinners: Surprising Benefits Your Kids Get From Fidgeting
By Dr. Meghan Prato
Have you ever found yourself sitting at a meeting at work bouncing your foot up and down? How about clicking your pen cap? Chewing gum? Doodling? Chances are, you’ve caught yourself twirling your hair or the like. Although these actions have many names, the buzz word lately has been fidgeting. The item you’re using to move around (the gum, the pen, etc.) is identified as the fidget.
This has become a hot topic recently with the booming business of fidget spinners (at least that’s what my daughter calls them). They’re currently being marketed as a tool to increase focus and decrease hyperactivity. They promise to help calm your child (or let’s be honest, yourself) and allow them to attend to important tasks such as paying attention in class.
Sounds great, right?!
If fidget spinners are so awesome, why are they getting banned by teachers in their classrooms?
Here’s the problem – a true “fidget” increases focus because it allows you to stay on task as your body is mindlessly in motion. A “fidget” becomes a toy if it serves as a distraction, pulling you off task. Spinners, for many (but not all) kids are more of a toy than they are a true “fidget.” They’re fun – they light up, they come in awesome colors, and you can even customize them.
Let’s face it, spinners are cool (I have two myself). I’ll bet you anything if you hand that 5th grader a pen cap and take away their spinner, they won’t be thrilled with alternative. Spinners are the craze, but they can also be distracting. This means that many kids may think they are “using” them, when in actuality, they are distracting themselves and those around them. For this reason, they are being banned in classrooms. The problem is – the baby is getting thrown out with the bath water. Some kids benefit from spinners, and other kids would benefit from other fidgets to help them focus and self-soothe.
So, if so many people think fidget spinners are toys, how do I know if my kid really NEEDS one?
Our minds are not designed to sit through lectures or meetings providing undivided attention for longer than roughly 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, our mind starts to wander. That’s where fidgeting comes in. Whether it be tapping their pen or skootching in their seat while their teacher talks about the Civil War, the fact of the matter is that fidgeting offers our kids (and ourselves) an opportunity to let their mind take a break WHILE they are paying attention. In todays’ modern society, this is an invaluable skill. It lengthens our attention span, allows us the opportunity to retain more information, and also has the potential to increase the quantity and quality of new ideas.
With this in mind, remember that your child, by nature, is likely to fidget on their own. Most kids are able to independently find ways to fidget in school that are not disruptive by the feedback they receive from their teachers and their friends. That’s the end of the story for most kids, and they go on their merry way, eventually becoming the adults that twirl their hair or chew gum.
For other kids, those methods aren’t enough. Your child might benefit from having something to fidget with if you are getting feedback from teachers that your child can’t sit still, focus, or refrain from chatting with his/her neighbor. Although this seems like it describes MOST children, the point that you know it’s a problem is the time when you see it impacting their learning. Are their grades slipping? Are they not retaining information? Are they disrupting their peers’ learning with their behavior? If this is the case, it’s time to start talking more in depth with your child’s teacher about potential causes, and explore options for intervention. This might include incorporating a fidget into their education.
I think my child might need one. What do I do next?
- Talk to your child’s teacher. Let them know that you recognize that there is a problem, and that you want to work with them to find a solution. Ask them for their thoughts/suggestions, and use their experience to help guide you. Remember that teachers are frustrated by “toys” in the classroom that impede learning and make their jobs more difficult. Ask them what they feel would minimize distractions; talk to them about your child’s needs.
- Find a fidget that works best. Remember that the idea is to find something that your child can fidget with without being drawn in to. Try some items at home and see how they work. Are they distracting your child? Is your child stopping to look at or fix the item? If the answer is yes, try something else.
- Consider a more accessible fidget. Twirling hair or squishing toes in your shoes is cheap, quiet, and easily accessible (since they go with you wherever you go). As you’re exploring options, consider fidgets that won’t cause heartbreak if lost or damaged, and can easily go with your child wherever they go.
- Don’t spend a ton of money. In fact, you can probably find “fidgets” that are free or below $5.00. Rubber bands, hair ties, paperclips, pens, or smaller items that can be discretely attached to your child’s pen or pencil are idea. Many of these are probably already in your child’s desk, and most of these you can buy in bulk so that you can easily replace a lost fidget. If searching online, you may find them referred to as sensory toys or sensory fidgets; these serve the same helpful purpose.
- When all else fails, reach out for additional support. Many schools have occupational therapists and/or school psychologists employed that can help in evaluating and intervening. Request further evaluation and support. You are your child’s best advocate – if you feel your child is still having problems with focusing and attending, continue exploring other avenues for interventions.
Although fidget spinners may not make the best “fidgets” right now for every child, they’ve also highlighted the importance of this topic and the opportunity to explore means to make our children and ourselves more successful. Fidgeting is such a commonplace behavior as adults that we don’t even realize part of our job is to teach our children to fidget in a way that not only helps them, but does not distract others. With some time, patience, and a little bit of perseverance, you can easily find the tool that works best for you and your little one!
This article was written by Dr. Meghan Prato, a child psychologist at Main Line Counseling Partners. She is now taking new clients in Bry Mawr, PA. Click here to schedule a 15 minute consultation, or here to read her article, “4 Things your Kids Need from you Tonight.”